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The Rhenish Helm
by David Nash Ford

T H E    R H E N I S H   H E L M
St. Mary's Church, Sompting, Sussex

Interior of the Rhenish Helm at Sompting (after Hewett)

The Rhenish Helm surmounting the tower of St. Mary's Church in Sompting has long been believed to be an original Anglo-Saxon spire: the only one in the country. The style is identical to that displayed on Anglo-Saxon censer covers, notably those from Pershore and Canterbury; and the church tower itself is clearly of Late Saxon/Early Romanesque style. A second, lost example, has also been identified at St. Benet's in Cambridge.

Censer Cover from PershoreHowever, the beams within are in remarkably good condition for Anglo-Saxon timbers, and there are indications in the church's history that the height of the tower was reduced by twenty-five feet in 1762. Therefore, when the roof was reshingled in 1984, a team of experts gathered to resolve the mystery of the helm.

The base of the tower, it appears, was originally the western end Saxon origins of Sompting Church (after Harris)of the nave of a small single storey Anglo-Saxon Church. At a later date, probably in the late 11th century, the tower was raised to just above the level of the existing windows of this period. However, seventeen cores taken from the roof timbers have denrochonologically dated the Rhenish Helm to between 1300 and 1330. This would seem to indicate that this enigmatic structure was built by the Knights Hospitallers when they took over the church from the suppressed Templars in 1310.

The style of the spire may, however, have earlier roots. Warwick Rodwell has suggested that it is likely that the early 14th century roofing of the tower was purely a remodelling of an original, and now lost, helm of similar form; perhaps with shingled gables as shown on the Pershore censer cover. Horizontal voids discovered in all four walls of the tower certainly indicate a substantial timber framework predated the present structure.

Architectural & Historical Discussion

Related Pages:
Saxon Churches

Fred Aldsworth (1989) "Sompting Church" in Current Archaeology No. 114
Nigel Kerr & Mary Kerr (1982) A Guide to Anglo-Saxon Sites
Mary Kerr & Nigel Kerr (1983) Anglo-Saxon Architecture      Copyright ©1999, LLC